If At First You Don’t Secede

The eyes of the nation are upon the new Republicans of Texas.

Forget the Alamo!

This sounds crass, but I can’t deny it: I desperately wanted the standoff at the Republic of Texas trailer-trash compound to last longer than it did–for selfish reasons.

Not weeks longer, mind you. Just a few hours. Just long enough for me to get there. Having missed all the famous government vs. fringe standoffs–Ruby Ridge, Waco, the Montana Freemen–I was determined to go and bear witness this time. I would find out at last if mysterious U.N.-dispatched “black helicopters” really buzz around at these things like giant hell-spawned bumblebees. I would document the local movements of guts-and-glory militia reinforcements. (A militia offensive of some sort was widely rumored on the Net, where one rabid militia man wrote: “WE HAVE HAD A BELLY FULL OF THE FBI, BATF, DEA, ETC. ETC. … Lock and Load, prepare to Rock and Roll.”) It sounds silly now, but militia trouble did seem plausible at Fort Davis. Wednesday, April 30, three days after the siege began, several heavily armed Republic of Texas members were apprehended at a truck stop near Pecos, Texas, about 90 miles from the action.

Alas, none of it was to be. I took off from Newark, N.J., at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, May 3. After landing in El Paso, I called a militia contact who had agreed to ask around about possible right-wing bivouacs. (I even brought camping gear!) Things looked “hot” when I left–from inside his “embassy,” ROT leader Richard McLaren was busily faxing out apocalyptic maydays–but his hot blood turned to pink Jell-O.

“Hey!” said my contact. “Guess you heard. It’s over.”

“What? No! McLaren was talking so tough.”

“Well, he came out.”

While I groaned, he described the final hours. McLaren had swallowed the old negotiator’s bait of surrender “with honor.” The lawmen treated him like the head of a brave conquered nation. He would be allowed to press in court his claim that the Republic of Texas had been illegally annexed by the United States in 1845. Then he would go to jail for many years. Not the best of deals, but he obviously preferred it to Plan B: getting shot.

Irented a car and putted around morosely, listening to the radio and mulling over my options. Texas lawmen were boasting, justifiably, about the happy outcome. Yes, there was one tiny glitch–two ROT activists had somehow slipped away–but that was no problem. A drawling official said these fugitives were not experienced in the back country, so they would be easy pickings. For my part, I knew there would be little left to see. The militia would “stand down.” Even the trailer compound–which had been tricked out with Swiss Family Robinson-style self-defense gizmos–was still off-limits to the media.

There was, however, one notable event left: Sunday, members of the other factions of the Republic of Texas were holding a big rally in Kilgore, to make clear that the movement would live on. (The republic, as you probably know, contains three competing clans.) I unfolded my map. Hmmm. Kilgore was way over by Louisiana. Even at 75 miles per hour, I could count on driving at least 12 hours, making it just in time for the opening gavel at 1 p.m.

Was it worth it?

No, but what else could I do–go see the Carlsbad Caverns? I buckled up and hit the road.

My Countries, Right or Wrong

The trip was worth it, at least in terms of understanding what motivates Republic of Texas believers. What motivates them is: They’re nuts. All of them.

That word is somewhat loaded, so I should be more precise. ROT members are nuts like the Lilliputians in Gulliver’s Travels were nuts. They don’t drool or wear their shirts backward, but they do expend insane amounts of energy on ridiculous “politics,” dissipating most of it through meaningless infighting and petty posturing. Are they evil, hateful nuts? No. I kind of liked most of them. They would be fun people to go fishing with.

Unfortunately, they have this other hobby: seceding from the union. And, being Texans, they have enough guns and ammo to potentially make matters not so cute. Most non-McLarian ROT members publicly disavow violence, but the possibility always lurks. Groups like the Republic of Texas exist in a murky gray zone where relatively harmless right-wing bigmouths meet the frightening shriekers of renegade militias, raising the question: At what point does nutty end and scary begin?

You can never tell, but Richard Keyes III is a good example of how quickly A can become Z. Keyes is the 21-year-old McLaren follower who actually carried out the kidnapping and shooting that started the whole Fort Davis mess. He’s originally from Kansas–so, to find out more about him, I called a county police detective there who tracks the far right. He’d heard of him only once, in a nutty-but-funny context. Keyes filed papers earlier this year demanding that Kansas return portions of the state to the rightful ownership of the Republic of Texas. Tee-hee. Next thing you know, however, he emerged as a serious shoot-’em-up guy.

As for the meeting, it was simply funny-nutty, but it became all too clear that the republic’s separatist fantasies will live on. A few hundred boisterous Texans–mostly men, middle-aged or above, with a fair number of angry young rednecks and dotty old women–filled the cramped banquet room of a run-down motor lodge in “downtown” Kilgore. Crowding one side of a long dais were frowning representatives of the two non-McLarian Republics of Texas. One is headed by David Johnson of Odessa, Texas. He didn’t show up, but some of his “council” members did–they were gray, natty, and grumpy, like Baptist deacons. The other faction is under the sway of Archie Lowe, a long-haired guy who looks like an amiable Harley rider and whose followers are a tiny bit more young and with-it. The Archies’ current agenda includes a quest for “international recognition” and the convening of a “Constitutional Convention” this July.

The meeting itself was extremely hard to follow. After generic introblab, the floor was opened to “the people,” a platoon of Brave New World Epsilons who lined up behind a floor microphone and took turns huffing and ranting. Among the highlights:

A very pale young man stood up and said that Judgment Day was coming unless the Republic of Texas succeeded. Then he started crying.

A stocky guy in a red shirt and a Republic of Texas cap stood and dramatically announced that he was the driver of one of the two vehicles detained by authorities in Pecos. It was all a gross injustice, of course. Yes, he and four ROT colleagues were traveling with full packs, semiautomatic weapons, pistols, radios, and plenty of ammo, but he said they were merely going to Kermit, Texas, to “hunt wild hogs.” But Pecos is not on the way if you’re going to Kermit from Garland. I asked him later: Why was he there? “I was curious about what was going on,” he said. “On a personal level.”

A gap-toothed old woman yelped that the federal government is “getting boxcars prepared with some kind of leg irons in ‘em to fasten you into place to ship you to concentration camps.”

OK, perhaps quoting the old woman is a cheap shot. Then again, I heard similar effusions from a high official–Jim Warmke, a wiry, sun-burnished old guy in a mustard-colored Western suit who serves as “secretary of commerce and trade” for the Branch McLarian remnant. I liked Jim, and I just hope his nuttiness stays “funny,” but I have to wonder. When we met he extended a huge sandpapery hand and said: “Howdy! Jim Warmke. W-A-R-M-K-E. Hot lock, warm key.” We talked about McLaren–“The man is a genius; he has a 160 IQ”–and I raised the question of violence. Given that the federal government and the state are always and forever going to kick ass in U.S. vs. Republic confrontations, when would a patriot like Jim feel justified in picking up a gun and charging?

And with such overwhelming odds, why would he do that?

“You’ll not know how close some came,” he said eerily. “I can tell you that the militias have but one methodology in mind. They do not intend to assemble 10-, 20-, 50,000 armed men in one spot and allow napalm to destroy them! There is a tactic called ‘targets of availability.’ What that means is … Your interpretation would be terrorism. There is no one that can control that. There is no government could control that.”

Bomb talk! Did he hear about specific targeted sites?

“I have suspicions, but I’ll not answer that based on suspicions.”

After Jim left, two Archie-faction ROT men scurried over and nervously assured me that Jim was a kook. Great. Why didn’t I feel reassured?

The Joke Stops Here

Monday, I finally visited Fort Davis on the way back to El Paso, just to get a feel for the place. Things sounded quite sparky on the radio. Early that morning, reports said that someone fired at the bloodhounds, and that lawmen were closing in. I arrived about 2 p.m. and roosted for a while by the police roadblock at the entrance to the Davis Mountain Resort subdivision. In the distance rose the stark, rocky, mesquite-covered peaks that define this area. A couple of dozen sunburned, siege-weary reporters were hanging around in cars, and one explained that the resort itself was miles and miles away. Whatever was happening, we wouldn’t be able to see it or hear it.

I took off and stopped for gas in the nearby town of Valentine. Inside I met an old codger named Clifford Beare, who had recently retired from the Jeff Davis County sheriff’s department. I asked him if it would be hard for runaways to hide in treeless mountains.

“Well, I guess, but you could hide. There’s a lot of caves and stuff.”

Did he think these guys would get caught?

“I think they will,” he said. “Yes I do.”

He was half right. About that time one fugitive, believed to be Mike Matson, was getting shot to death in a gun battle. The other, Keyes, appears to have got away, and Tuesday, the authorities scaled back the search for him, making vague noises about the terrain and wild animals finishing him off. “He can … only have a finite amount of food and water,” said Mike Cox, who has been the state’s spokesman throughout the siege.

What? Of all these people, Keyes is the only survivor who demands to be taken seriously. He started the violence; he never gave up; and he went out ready to blast away and die. They better hope something gets him, because if he does stagger out of those mountains alive, he’s going to be biblically, nuttily, and unfunnily pissed.